“By 1970, the heart of ’60s rock was going down. The Beatles were breaking up. The Stones were inactive. So rock ‘n’ roll was losing its energy. It needed time to take its breath. And when it was taking its breath, that’s when this singer/songwriter movement was at its most powerful,” says Robert Hilburn, former music critic for the Los Angeles Times, in the opening moments of American Masters: Troubadours: Carole King/James Taylor & The Rise of the Singer-Songwriter, premiering on PBS March 2.
For the next hour and a half, fans of both legendary artists — and the richly introspective songs that spilled down from L.A.’s Laurel Canyon to Hollywood’s Troubadour and out into the American musical lexicon — are treated to a breathtaking visual and audio memoir of the cultural movement that was music’s soul-searching answer to the tumultuous ’60s. Inspired by Taylor and King’s 2007 reunion shows (and subsequent tour) in celebration of “the Troub’s” 50th anniversary, the documentary is filled with previously unseen footage of the performers, the images of famed musician/photographer Henry Diltz, and the insights of King and Taylor, plus a wide-ranging cast of others who gave rise to the “California Sound” — including David Crosby, Jackson Browne, Elton John and famed record producer Peter Asher.
Asher came to California in 1969, having left his role as head of A&R at the Beatles’ Apple Records following the arrival of controversial executive Allen Klein. His new mission: making a star of a lanky Boston native named James Taylor, who’d sought out Asher in London at the suggestion of their mutual friend, guitarist Danny Kortchmar.
The rest is music history.
“James was going back to America anyway — that was always part of the equation,” says Asher. “And we had discussed it at some length and out of these discussions came the decision that I should become his manager — because there was nobody else he particularly trusted to do it. So we both came back to America and I made a new record deal on his behalf with Warner Bros. Records. He came out to California and we made Sweet Baby James.”
The duo also spent plenty of time at the Troubadour, eccentric music lover Doug Weston’s edgier answer to the coffeehouses that were the traditional proving ground of new performers. The place was a playground for the close-knit community of artists who spent their days collaborating in the hills of Laurel Canyon and their nights singing and socializing there on Santa Monica Blvd.
“It was a great place to have a drink and meet girls and hang out and hear new songs and see friends,” recalls Asher. “It was kind of like a club except there was no membership. As for being there at the rise of the singer/songwriter era, obviously I was very fortunate because I was James Taylor’s manager and producer and went on to manage, at one time or another, Joni [Mitchell] and Carole and Randy Newman and some of the other people involved. I was very lucky, and I knew it.”
And, as the documentary details, the Troubadour alumni rose to fame, one by one, achieving the international recognition they hoped their songs would inspire and inevitably outgrow the club that was once their home — and Weston’s iron-fisted demands. But all embrace the power of the times, the place and the man who launched a lasting musical genre in his California club.
“He was a bit crazy and, toward the end, things did get kind of nuts,” says Asher. “Especially during the cocaine boom, we all got a little bit crazy and Doug got crazy the most. But I liked him very much. He was a very tough businessman; those options of his were famously brutal. But the club probably wouldn’t have survived without them — so he was right. He did the right thing. He didn’t want to get left behind by all these people who played at his club and then went on to fame and fortune. Doug was a good man.
“He loved his club and he loved music and he was a little bit nuts — and all those things were exactly what was called for in that era.”